Race and Ratings – Survivor: Cook Islands

By Kai Wright Sep 19, 2006

by Kai Wright Reality TV is all about making people uncomfortable – whether it’s eating bugs or sharing homes with belligerent strangers, the fun lies in watching others squirm. So with its ratings in the tank, CBS’ “Survivor” has turned for salvation to America’s most disquieting subject: race. And predictably, long before the Sept. 14 debut of “Survivor: Cook Islands,” the chattering class was abuzz about the show’s provocative set up. The producers have divided their 20 contestants into four teams based on race – whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos. The contestants have started off as good sports, playing down the significance of their tribal arrangements while still serving up the necessary caricatures. The Asians fretted over their model minority status as Vietnamese refugee Cao Boi (with the perfectly ironic pronunciation of “cowboy”) forced the issue with jokes about eating rice and his team’s slim build. He later salved a teammate’s headache with an alternative healing technique as the producers cued up vaguely eastern background music. Across the island, the beau hunks and sorority girls of the white team plotted how to hook up with each other, and the tribe’s suburban dad behaved with appropriate oafishness. The black team dutifully split verbs, chanted their intent to “represent” and divided along gender lines – while losing the first competition badly. And, of course, the Latino team was composed entirely of white Latinos. But the show hardly met its potential for mining the dredge of American racism. And producer Mark Burnett insists there’s a built-in fail-safe to keep “Survivor” out of the muck. “We’re smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting,” he has boasted. How they pulled off that feat is anybody’s guess. For the truly interesting part of this “social experiment like never before,” as host Jeff Probst put it, is that it reveals just how blithe America remains about its horrific racial past — and present. We’re a nation founded on the genocide of one people and generations of brutal enslavement of another, both of which were justified by creating racial castes and ranking their humanity. Racism is our national legacy, at the center of our historical narrative. We now widely agree that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero (though Ronald Reagan openly questioned his allegiance to the United States while president). But we refute any tie between the 192 years of slavery and Jim Crow that preceded his assassination and the cyclical black poverty that has followed it. Rather than confront such demons we thrash about between ignoring them and spoofing them in buddy comedies and reality TV shows. It’s fitting that Survivor’s contribution to this racial myopia is actually an affirmative action effort gone sadly awry. The set up grew out of recurring criticism that the show has had few non-white characters, Probst explained to “The Early Show.” Instead of meaningfully exploring that fact and developing a system for attracting suitable non-white contestants, the producers retreated into a cheap gimmick. Perhaps to do otherwise would have just been too uncomfortable.